La Jetée is a love letter to the seductive and haunting power of images. It uses the most efficient and concise of means—black-and-white stills, snippets of sound—to evoke both the primordial and the apocalyptic, conveying a futuristic time-travel premise with materials that seem very archaic, like remnants from the birth of cinema. For me, this is the purest expression and distillation of the idea of movies as receptacles of emotion.
Woman in the Dunes
I feel like it’s the id visualized as cinema. It’s raging, it’s primal, it’s brutal. A film like this shows you how lacking contemporary American cinema is in eroticism, which is about the unleashing of a woman’s power.
The image of the woman character, with her mouth open in the throes of sexual ecstasy as she clutches the man on top of her, is so indelible. It makes me recall this quote from Audre Lorde: “The erotic has often been misnamed by men and used against women. It has been made into the confused, the trivial, the psychotic, the plasticized sensation. For this reason, we have often turned away from the exploration and consideration of the erotic as a source of power and information, confusing it with its opposite, the pornographic. But pornography is a direct denial of the power of the erotic, for it represents the suppression of true feeling. Pornography emphasizes sensation without feeling. The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. It is an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire.”
In the love scene in my film, I attempt to depict and flesh out that particular idea. It’s fascinating to me how the woman in Woman in the Dunes is demonized for her erotic power. Sexual desire is something I’d like to explore more in my films—and I’d be curious to see how mainstream culture reacts to that.
Wong Kar Wai
In the Mood for Love
Unfulfilled romantic yearning is the grandest and most monumental of cinematic emotions. These are the films that really stay with you—Casablanca, Titanic, and of course In the Mood for Love . . . If the lovers in those movies stayed together in the end, they would not be the classics that they are remembered for being now.
In the Mood for Love is an exercise in creating and sustaining a mood, and in employing plot, character, production design, and pretty much all the other elements of cinema in service of that. It’s a sustained high from start to finish. You don’t think much about the plot; you can just luxuriate in the movie and let it wash over you. I don’t think heartbreak and thwarted love have ever felt so rich and sensuous and splendid and exquisite.
Alan J. Pakula
I think of Klute as a neonoir. It’s a strikingly modern update on the femme fatale character; the protagonist, Bree Daniels, is haunted by her own demons, and she contains multitudes. She doesn’t have a heart of gold; she has a heart of darkness. She was actually the very first character I saw on-screen who made me want to be an actor.
I know this is an odd comparison, but I think about the fact that Klute came out in 1971, just two years after Bob Fosse’s Sweet Charity, with Shirley MacLaine. Those films feel generations—even centuries—apart, despite sharing a theme and being made in the same era.
Klute is a very moody, atmospheric, and paranoid New York film, and in a way my film Lingua Franca references it: it’s also a portrait of a woman in a setting tinged with unease and uncertainty.
Lino Brocka represents the apotheosis of Philippine seventies social realism in cinema. Insiang is so visceral and grimy and squalid and tactile. This is definitely a movie where the slums of Manila are their own character; you can smell the place and feel its textures. It’s also grandly operatic and melodramatic, and also full of savagery and barbarism.
Its opening slaughterhouse scene feels very different from the one in my own film, and I mention this because, as a filmmaker, I was trying to establish my own identity and sensibility. I have an ambivalent relationship with Brocka. He’s very much a giant of Philippine cinema, and even now, contemporary filmmakers are doing variations and riffs on his style of social realism. Even Lingua Franca has a premise that’s ostensibly social realist, but I’m trying to use that formula while infusing it with my own style and idiosyncrasies and quirks. Social realism is a framework that many contemporary Philippine filmmakers have been operating in, and I’m trying to rebel against that (aesthetically, not ideologically) to showcase a different kind of Philippine art-house cinema.
Hiroshima mon amour
I love the juxtaposition between the unsettling, disturbing imagery of what happened in Hiroshima with the lyrical dialogue written by Marguerite Duras and the striking score. As a filmmaker, I’m drawn to the dissonance and clash between the surface image and the conflicted emotion that’s underpinning it. I’m also drawn to this very intimate love affair that plays out in a fraught sociopolitical setting. Sometimes, movies that you’d expect to feel political and preachy end up being poetic meditations on elusive themes like time and memory.
Paul Thomas Anderson
This is one of Paul Thomas Anderson’s underrated masterpieces. It’s intoxicating and very experimental. I love when filmmakers work within a particular genre but find a way to burst through the constraints and parameters and take you to an exciting, dizzying place. I like to call this Anderson’s The Apartment due to his virtuosic handling of tones, from crippling anxiety to swooning romanticism. Although the film is very controlled, it has the energy and ambition of a debut feature. I just enjoy seeing a director break rules over and over again and take risks that could have ended in him falling flat on his face and yet, somehow, he soars. The deadpan, madcap comedy, and the objects and environments, subtly remind me of Jacques Tati. Anderson uses these elements to capture emotion, as in the opening shot, where Adam Sandler is isolated in the corner of the frame with nothing around him but a blue and white background. We feel his solitude and alienation.
Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles
When I saw Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, it reminded me very much of Jeanne Dielman. Both films are ticking time bombs; their placid surfaces open up to the tensions that are roiling underneath. Jeanne Dielman is just a portrait of a woman performing her daily rituals, and from the outside looking in, it seems like everything is as it should be. But it becomes increasingly claustrophobic and suffocating until the explosive climax at the end. Some people might think this comes out of nowhere, but I thought it was the most natural and logical conclusion to the story. I definitely channel that feeling of suffocating domesticity, in a much more muted way, in Lingua Franca. I also reference Akerman’s News from Home in the opening and closing montages of the film.
The Cranes Are Flying
What a feat of visual storytelling. In one scene it can go from intimate and dreamy to panoramic and nightmarish, as in the moment that starts with the female character in a telephone booth and the camera slowly pulls back to show the vast, empty terrain she’s in. The camera work is bold and impressionistic.
This film has a reputation for its innovative use of tracking shots. These moments impress me not only because they’re technically dazzling but because they manage to still feel organic and empathetic. Halfway through the movie we see a character looking for her fiancé through a crowd, and as the camera moves we see the faces of Russian society. It’s almost Tolstoy-esque: we’re watching a very personal and private drama of two lovers, but they’re firmly and clearly situated within a particular society, in a particular period of time. Mikhail Kalatozov’s style reminds me a lot of German expressionism, in terms of how geometric the sculpting of light and shadow is. But he employs this aesthetic to elicit emotions that are very tender and very soft. I like the contrast of that.
The Big City
I think of this film both on its own and in connection with the experience I had seeing it. I hadn’t heard of Satyajit Ray until the Film Society of Lincoln Center had a retrospective of his work in the spring of 2009, and that’s where I saw this for the first time. Aside from The Apu Trilogy, I consider this and Charulata to be Ray’s masterpieces, and both happen to be about a woman’s awakening and the monumental implications it has for the patriarchal societies in which the characters exist. Charulata is set in nineteenth-century India, and the awakening is an aesthetic and creative one. In The Big City, it’s one of economic agency, and therefore also of political consciousness. Films that are about women navigating private dramas within broader sociopolitical frameworks inspire my own work, and this film is a very good example of that. I find its treatment of the woman character’s arc and the gender politics to be both bracingly modern and feminist for its time—not surprising, coming from Ray. It’s also more humanist and empathetic than it is overtly political. Madhabi Mukherjee, the lead in both films, is sublime.
Jesse Malin’s Top 10
After playing in hard-core and glam bands throughout the 1980s and ’90s, Queens-born singer-songwriter Jesse Malin released his first solo album, The Fine Art of Self Destruction, in 2002.
James Schamus’s Top 10
James Schamus is the former CEO of Focus Features; the producer of, among other films, Ride with the Devil (1999) and Brokeback Mountain (2005); the screenwriter and producer of The Ice Storm (1997); and a professor of professional practice at Columb…